The Carter duo breathes new life into classic paintings

Jenkins Johnson Gallery/Courtesy

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Before photographs and video, painting was the only way to capture life in an image. The best paintings were those that most closely resembled the real world around them, those that could capture life in a still canvas. Artists aimed to imbue their subjects with a realistic sense of breath. But what would Vermeer say if he saw his milkmaid’s arm actually twitch as she delicately held a pitcher of milk flowing into a bowl below? Or Da Vinci, if the sun slowly set behind a blinking Mona Lisa?

At the entrance of Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco lies a nude woman reclining on a cushion. She sits inside an ornate frame against a serene, rural background. From afar, the painting appears to be a copy of Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione’s “The Sleeping Venus,” but a closer look reveals that this is not even a painting. The surface of the work is actually a screen, and the scene is in motion. Venus’ full belly rises and falls with each breath. The background fades from day to night. The work, “Transforming Nude Painting,” is one of the cornerstones of British artistic duo Rob and Nick Carter’s project, “Transforming.”

To create the works in “Transforming,” which are on display alongside other new works in the Carters’ current show, the artists utilize cutting-edge technology to pick up where these old masters left off. While the previous artists sought to make increasingly lifelike images, the Carters now literally bring their works to life. They do so through a collaboration with Moving Picture Company (MPC), a creative studio that did visual effects for major films, like “Harry Potter” and “Life of Pi.” Together, the Carters and MPC sought to create a viewing experience that “rewarded the viewer with a sustained engagement,” the Carters explained to The Daily Californian over email.

“We realised that nowadays we are so surrounded by imagery that the risk of being bombarded and distracted is very real,” they said. At a museum, even in front of the most visually complex and provocative images, we may only spend a few minutes. Standing in front of “Transforming Nude Painting,” the viewer is lured deep into the scene. The work is a two and a half-hour loop that layers footage of a live model over a digitally-rendered background. The viewer is not only engaged by a connection with the breathing human, but also by gripping surprise.

In “Transforming Still Life Painting,” the Carters, along with MPC, look to re-enliven a painting genre that arose from an artist’s desire to boast his or her ability to depict reality. They recreated Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s “Vase with Flowers in a Window” by tracing each flower’s image into a digital 3-D sculpture, so they can animate the image, add blowing wind and even living critters, like snails and flies. Again, the viewer is rewarded with little surprises. Looking closer at the screen, the surface retains the inherent qualities of paint, the tangible brushstrokes. The Carters use new media to glorify an old medium.

The Carters have worked for years at the intersection of art and technology, and their work gains new significance in the context of the capital of technological innovation. Beyond the aesthetic surprises of their work is a fascination with the use of the most current technology — how exactly do they make this all happen on the screen? “This wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. In that sense (our art is) very much of our time,” they said.

Their work is then part of broader movements in new media art — artists who also consider themselves technologists and the collaborative manufacture of art. As the Carters say, “art is about ideas,” and, with creativity playing a central role in art as well as technological development, it seems only natural to unite these fields in art of the 21st century. Their work pushes us to look back at what was considered “art” several hundred years ago and consider simultaneously what art can become today.

Rob and Nick Carter’s recent works will be on view at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco until Nov. 1.

Contact Anna Carey at [email protected].